Good honest pub grub with fresh seafood
John Fish, head chef at the Merrymoor Inn, Mawgan Porth.
The beautiful rugged beaches of Cornwall's north coast are the magnet that lure families through six-hour car journeys, heavy traffic, all for the calming waves and the seagull-filled skies. Perhaps there is something timeless about this landscape, a hint of freedom and escape when you can see the horizon, watch the sunset over the sea, we Brits have always been drawn to the sea.
And after all that driving, some good honest food at the beach with a pint on the table, and the sea before you, what could be nicer. The Bennett family who own the Merrymoor at Mawgan Porth have been providing good food and a friendly welcome for over 50 years across three generations. They've built a thriving business based on that simple formula and placed the Merrymoor at the heart of their local community.
Chef John Fish, for that really is his name, trained in the army; two years of intense training covering everything from making breakfast for 500 from a field kitchen, to fine dining for officers, to banquets. John has led the team at the Merrymoor for two years. "They employed me because of the freshness I like to get into things. We are a pub with pub food, but I put a twist on things and we do a lot of fish because of how close we are to the sea here."
Fish dishes featuring on the pub's menu include mackerel, a crispy calamari dish with a fresh pineapple salsa and hake dish. There is also dressed crab or crab sandwiches available. John explains: "We use a lot of mussels, and I tend to cook those using the pub’s beers like Doom Bar with a cream sauce."
John says fish is very popular with customers who are on holiday: "When they are cooking at home they won’t experiment, but when they come here they love it. For children we find they like mussels which surprises me, so we do half portions for them."
The Merrymoor is a busy place that serves breakfast, lunch and evening meals, often catering for 200 at lunchtime and up to 260 in the evening. Behind the scene John heads up a team of four in the kitchen, and space is at a premium. John says the secret is preparation. "You have to be at the best on prep. If you’re not there by 11.30am you will struggle for the rest of the day chasing your tail."
With such a large number of covers, simplicity is the secret of maintaining high quality, that and choosing good ingredients: "I like to use sustainable fish, we go for the pollock and the hake. I like to use a whole fish, a whole megrim sole. In the winter I do put on gamey dishes, we’ve got the beach there but on the other side we have the fields and that is available to us.
"We use Matthew Stevens as our main supplier but we also buy off local fishermen. Personally if you could rely on that you’d do it all the time."
The dish John will be demonstrating at this year's festival he describes as an alternative to fish and chips 'a nice sizzling summer dish'. Whole grilled mackerel, with a nice zinging salad made with carrot, coriander, fennel and parsley with sweet potato fries.
The sweet potatoes are blanched on a low heat to get them cooked in the middle and help give them a fluffy on the inside crispy on the outside finish when they are fried.
Fennel is sliced up in the salad to make what John calls posh coleslaw. Red onion, carrot and fennel, orange segments and toasted pine nuts to make a sweet salad which compliments the oily mackerel. He adds a splash of white wine vinegar to help the acidity and take the sharpness away from the fennel. The salad is finished with chopped parsley and coriander to add to the zesty theme. The pine nuts are grilled to bring out their oils and give them some colour before they join the rest of the salad ingredients.
To cook the already gutted mackerel, score the back of the fish and cook it whole. It cooks quickly and opens up nicely so you can see all the flesh inside. The fish is seasoned with a tiny bit of sea salt and some black pepper. "We don’t turn the fish just crisp it on the top and finish it quickly in the oven to cook through for two minutes."
John grills lemon for garnish as a final touch and the dish is ready in minutes. "When we have hot spells people go mad for it, it's simple fresh and tasty, a great summer dish." n
John Fish will be taking to the stage at this year’s Fish Festival on Saturday, September 12, at 4pm.